Gandamack Lodge is Harry Flashman’s fictitious address in the original George MacDonald Fraser novel about the caddish officer, set at the time of the first Afghan war. You can now stay at Gandamack Lodge, a handsome if dilapidated villa in downtown Kabul. A lawn, wicker chairs, prints of Surrey on the walls: if it wasn’t for the electricity cuts and the coffee, which the Afghans just can’t get right, this would be a piece of England in the heart of the slum that is Kabul. Two of Osama bin Laden’s wives, number one and number two, lived here during the Taleban’s reign. In their haste to depart, as American bombs fell in October 2001, they left behind an old bra and $450 in unpaid rent. American agents knew about the villa, and were watching it at the time. It appears that Osama wasn’t being a good Muslim, which saved him. The prophet commanded that the faithful may have up to four wives provided they are fair to all of them. Apparently he preferred new models to the old number one and number two, although if he had paid the first ones more attention there would now be a hole in the ground instead of a house. The place has come back to life thanks to Peter Jouvenal, the legendary freelance cameraman who liberated Kabul in 2001 together with John Simpson, walking into the city ahead of Northern Alliance troops. Peter seems to be settling down at last with a spirited young Afghan wife, and he has enough journalist, aid worker and adventurer friends from his frontline past to give Gandamack Lodge yet another life, and make it into a commercial success.
The best thing about the Lodge, though, is the company. Here you can bump into people like the not-so-young fogey Matthew Leeming. In a country in which most provinces are still no-go areas for foreigners, Mr Leeming — a regular Spectator contributor — has safely guided several groups of tourists here, the ultimate adrenaline trip. His life ambition seems to be to deliver a marshal’s baton made by Spinks to Mr Fahim, Afghanistan’s corrupt, dog-faced defence minister. Intriguingly, he also runs a project to discover whether many Afghans are indeed descended from the soldiers of Alexander’s army — which passed here on the way to conquer India — as many of them believe. Himmler used to be obsessed with this stuff and sent expeditions to Nuristan and Tibet to find the real Aryans. Mr Leeming has acquired DNA from Philip of Macedon’s skull and is now taking samples of Afghan DNA from saliva, which involves putting cotton swabs into the tribesmen’s mouths. The theory has always been supported by the fact that there seems to be a higher proportion of fair-haired, blue-eyed Afghans in some of the more remote valleys. But, actually, there is a problem: when did you last meet a blond Greek?
It was wonderful to see the old king, Zahir Shah, back in his palace. You enter via the roundabout with the Soviet-style traffic tower, the one on which the Taleban hung the castrated body of General Najibullah, the last communist leader of Afghanistan. Najibullah was the former chief of Khad, the brutal East-German-trained secret police; it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow. Given that they hung both television sets and communists on lampposts, maybe the Taleban were not all bad. You can’t take photographs of the tower now because the CIA has set up its Kabul station directly behind it, in the old Ariana hotel. One assumes that the snipers on the roof do not ask questions first.
The royal palace itself is remarkably undamaged, with old trees in the courtyards, marble floors, wooden furniture and stags’ heads on the walls. There’s even a small painting of the Doge’s palace in one of the anterooms. Zahir Shah is tieless and modestly dressed, the picture of a nice old-age pensioner, and remarkably agile for his 90 years. Imagine the emotion when he first saw Afghanistan’s jagged mountains and green oases, flying back here after three decades of exile. Reminiscing about the distant past, he recalled that of all his state visits the one to Britain was the most enjoyable. At their first meeting, the Queen warned him there would be hundreds of his compatriots waiting outside Buckingham Palace. And indeed, on the way to Clarence House he waved to hundreds of people holding Afghan hounds on leashes.
The king’s very presence here in Kabul is surely a lucky portent. Constitutional monarchy would be far and away the most suitable form of government for Afghanistan’s conservative society. In an ethnically divided society, the monarch can be a symbol of national unity, whereas the presidential elections, now scheduled for October, are bound to stir the divisive partisan passions which this country has in overabundance. Zahir Shah did not press to be restored to the throne, and seems satisfied to play the role of godfather to the new regime. Although his weakness in the 1970s arguably allowed Soviet influences into Afghanistan and led to the 1979 invasion, it is likely he will be remembered as the only Afghan ruler in recent memory who did not murder Afghans en masse. Given how he began his reign — his father was stabbed to death in front of him — it is remarkable that he may be the first Afghan ruler for centuries with a chance to die from natural causes.
One of his predecessors, Babur — founder of the Mogul empire in India — still lies under a simple marble slab up on one of the hills that jut above Kabul’s high plateau. When I last visited, in 1993, the Babur garden was on the three-way frontline in what was then a civil war between Ahmad Shah Masud’s Panjshiris, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s murderous militia, and the boy army of Shia Hazaras. Tanks stood in the shaded lanes and solders with machineguns milled about, although the park was essentially intact. The mass of ancient old trees was so thick, in fact, that I missed a Soviet-era swimming pool built not a hundred yards from the grave. It was a shock to see the expanse of dirt now, with only the stumps of ancient trees protruding from the ground. During the civil war, someone stole the water pumps that irrigated the garden, and everything died. The doom is relieved somewhat by the sound of spades digging the ground and hammers on stone: the Aga Khan’s charitable foundation is heroically rebuilding the place. In about a hundred years, when the new trees grow thick again, the garden may be as charming as before.